Cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki. Production stills by Jaap Buitendijk © Universal Pictures
By Koraljka Suton
Almost two decades ago, director Alfonso Cuarón’s fourth feature, the 2001 sexual road comedy Y tu mamá también, became an unexpected success and went on to earn the filmmaker a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination the following year. The unanticipated critical acclaim meant that Cuarón was now getting handed scripts left and right, but the filmmaker settled on asking his agent to simply send him summaries, seeing as how he was not big on reading Hollywood screenplays. That is when an adaptation of P.D. James’ 1992 sci-fi novel The Children of Men written by Paul Chart, and later rewritten by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, came his way. Although both Cuarón and his screenwriting collaborator Timothy J. Sexton were intrigued by the story’s premise, the director was on the fence when it came to turning the book into a feature film. But then 9/11 happened. Cuarón was at the Toronto Film Festival at the time. Due to the suspension of air travel, he and his Y tu mamá también cast members were left stranded in Canada for several days, wondering what the twenty-first century would hold in store for humanity. Suddenly, the story about a dystopian future where global infertility accompanied by a refugee crisis in a British police state was the new normal opened up a whole new world of creative and philosophical possibilities for the auteur: “The future isn’t some play ahead of us; we’re living in the future at this moment.”
But Cuarón decided not to read the novel out of fear of second guessing everything, so he and Sexton came to an understanding that involved the former reading the abridged version and the latter taking in the novel in its entirety. Ultimately, very little of the original story was actually included in the screenplay which was re-written by David Arata, while Cuarón was off filming Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Eric Newman, one of the producers behind what would eventually become Children of Men, understandably did not have high hopes for ever getting the adaptation made, what with Universal Pictures having seconds thoughts about the picture and the director now being part of a big movie franchise. Lucky for Newman, his doubts turned out to be unfounded because the whole time Cuarón was filming Potter, Children of Men was on his mind. He spent his free time reading and engaging in conversations with locals, all for the purpose of gaining insight into the “British psyche,” something he would need if he wanted to depict the dystopian version of the UK.
After the director was finished with Azkaban, he finally got the green light from Universal Pictures in 2005, even though the studio executive readily admitted to having no idea as to what Cuarón wanted to do with the movie. For the lead role of Theo, Clive Owen was cast (with Matt Damon, Russell Crowe and George Clooney being previously considered) and had contributed to the script during pre-production, but ultimately remained uncredited. Julianne Moore stepped into the shoes of Theo’s ex-wife Julian, although she was initially supposed to play the character of the asylum-seeking refugee Kee, a role that ended up belonging to British actress Clare-Hope Ashitey. Jasper, Theo’s buddy and dealer, was portrayed by Sir Michael Caine who based his character on an older version of someone who had actually been a friend of his—the late John Lennon. As Cuarón recalls: “He wanted the body language and the nasal voice and the cadence of how he portrayed this character to reflect the way he said Lennon used to talk. And then after we shot some scenes, I saw some old footage of Lennon and it was identical.”
As far as a director of photography was concerned, Cuarón got his friend Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki on board and also set his sights on another potential artistic collaborator—the faceless street artist Banksy. The director had arranged a coffee-shop meeting with Banksy’s manager who then spent their time together asking him questions about his political stances. The meeting ultimately came to an open-ended close—it was only later that Cuarón found out about a mysterious man who entered the coffee shop during their conversation, sat behind Cuarón and left before the director had a chance to notice anybody was even there. If you asked the filmmaker, the stealthy figure was none other than Banksy himself. Although he did not agree to a collaboration in the end, the artist supposedly permitted his image of two kissing policemen be used in the background in one of the scenes.
With a pre-production process as long and wearisome as this one, and a production process deemed turbulent due to Cuarón’s strive for perfection and his reluctance to accept anything less than, one would assume that Children of Men managed to reap what had been so diligently sown. And that it did, but only in time. For even though the movie got a standing ovation at the Venice film festival and garnered some serious critical acclaim, Universal Pictures never quite knew how to market it—so they did it rather poorly. This resulted in it flopping at the box office by grossing less than $70 million, a catastrophic result for a feature that cost $6 million more than that. And despite the fact that it got nominated for three Academy Awards—for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing—it was unjustly overlooked for all the “big” ones. The director, feeling defeated, took a step back from public life and for a while there it seemed as though Children of Men was all she wrote, before his eventual comeback with Gravity in 2013.
Today, more than a decade after its original release, Cuarón’s bleak dystopian vision of the future is regarded as one of the best, and dare I say most prescient, films of the 2000s. This long-overdue recognition came as early as 2016, when it was ranked 13th out of BBC’s 100 greatest films of the twenty-first century. It is safe to say that the global events we have collectively borne witness to during the previous decade have vastly contributed to the willingness of the general public to not just revisit the movie that did not manage to reach the audience it deserved when it first premiered, but to also harbor a new-found appreciation for a true work of art that, once considered pure fiction, has started to resemble our lived reality a bit more with every passing day.
It is the year 2027 and humanity is faced with global depression and the promise of extinction. People are mourning the tragic death of an eighteen-year-old boy—the world’s youngest person. We follow Theo Faron, a disheartened civil servant and former activist living in southeastern England who seems unaffected by the events taking place across his country. Refugees from all over the world flee to the UK in search of asylum, only to be imprisoned or executed by the British Army, while terrorist attacks have become an everyday occurrence. But when Theo is contacted by his ex-wife and asked to secure transit papers for a “fugee” (short for refugee) named Kee in exchange for money, the protagonist unknowingly gives up the luxury of passivity. Due to an unexpected turn of events, the bureaucrat finds himself not only running for dear life, but also trying to keep Kee safe, thereby protecting the future of humanity itself.
In light of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2016 and other geopolitical factors, many an online contributor has claimed that we are now living in the world brought forth by Children of Men. But if you asked Cuarón, his feature was not a prophecy, but rather a warning given by someone who had been keeping his eyes open for quite some time. He even went so far as to claim that those taken aback by the events depicted in Children of Men were either uninformed or in denial regarding the state the world was already in back in 2006. The themes he brought to life on film had been a reality since the turn of the twenty-first century, Cuarón argues—just not one that was part of the mainstream discussion. That has now changed and the filmmaker’s masterpiece is as significant as it has ever been. And rightfully so.
For its quality lies not only in the detailed and grim portrayal of our world that is starting to hit a little too close to home, but also in the way the director decided to present us with his vision. We are meant to see our own reflection in Owen’s brilliantly portrayed Theo, a man who suffered a tragic loss and subsequently became so desensitized to the violence around him, he would rather live a life of detached apathy than bring himself to willfully care again. A man who walks the Earth a shadow of the person he once was, aware of the meaninglessness and transience of his own existence, but too numb to take action that might make a difference. In his mind’s eye, it would be in vain anyway, since last time he checked, the world was a hopeless place waiting for the human race to die out. But as this man, stuck inside his own bubble of pain, gets sucked into the inhumane reality of what it means to be fighting for your life in a country that does not want you, we the viewers are invited to join him in living and breathing the suffering of those who are perceived as “other.”
To get his point even clearer and more vehemently across, Cuarón intentionally made the person who is the epitome of disenfranchised otherness—an immigrant black woman—into the beacon of hope that carries with it the possibility of quite literally saving humanity from extinction. And he does so in the most heart-breaking and awe-inspiring of ways. In Children of Men, the promise of new life rising from the ruins of a world on the brink of destruction is treated with as much sanctity as is possible to muster in the midst of chaos and mayhem reigning supreme. This dichotomy is a wonder to behold, perfectly symbolizing the power of perseverance that can be found not in hope itself, but rather in hope-inspired action. For every step Theo takes and every proactive decision he makes, regardless of the shitshow that surrounds him, is informed by his self-imposed mission to keep the seed of hope alive, so as to enable it to fully blossom and become the change the human race so desperately needs. By ensuring the survival of Kee and the secret she is forced to shelter from a world drenched in self-interest, Theo is indirectly healing his own trauma inflicted by not one, but two significant losses he had no power to prevent. On a personal level, he redeems himself. On a global level, he redeems humanity.
And on an artistic level, Cuarón redeems filmmaking by fully utilizing all the tools inherent to the medium, so as to enable us to have an immersive cinematic experience that has the potential of expanding both our awareness and our capacity for deep empathy. One of the director’s least favorite tools is in fact the narrative itself, which is why in Children of Men the reasons behind female infertility, among other things, were neither explored nor answered. Here, the why that led to the emergence of a dystopian society is not important—the what that human beings go through as a means of staying alive while keeping their humanity intact is what we are meant to be vicariously exposed to. As Cuarón himself stated: “Narrative is the poison of cinema (…) What I hate is when cinema is hostage of narrative (…) Then I say, ‘Come on—don’t be lazy, read a book.’ If you want to see performances, go to the theater; it’s fantastic! It’s an actor’s medium there and a dramatic medium—at least conventional theater. But come on, leave cinema alone! Let cinema breathe, in which narrative is an element of the cinematic experience, but it’s an element, as acting is an element, cinematography is an element. Music and decors, those are elements. But right now? Cinema becomes just about seeing illustrated stories as opposed to engaging audiences in an experience in which you don’t explain much (…) I’m not saying that narrative isn’t valuable, of course. But it’s not only in cinema. In our culture, this culture, it’s over-narratized. Everything is built on the content of a narrative. Politicians tell you narratives all the time. Then we are missing one of the biggest, probably something more powerful than narrative to humans, that is, symbols. The reading of symbols. Not only the understanding of narrative. People tell you that narrative is something organically human. Yes. But even more? The reading of symbols. Even what you see in the early paintings in caves. Yeah, there’s a narrative there, but more than that, there’s movement. And there are symbolic elements that they were relating. It’s not like they did a comic strip of what happened with hunters.”
So to ensure that Children of Men would indeed immerse us in a kind of experience only the medium of film can provide, Cuarón made his exposition an integral part of the new world order that we got the witness on screen: information is given through news broadcasts and visual imagery such as graffiti or signs, while the entire filming approach was a documentary one. Wide single-shots filmed with handheld cameras were his and Lubezki’s way of making sure that the audience remains with the characters while they are in the thick of it all. If you asked Cuarón, frequent cuts to a scene only ever take you out of the domain of what is real—and his goal was the exact opposite.
Although masterfully shot through and through, there are two sequences in Children of Men that are considered some of the most impressive action scenes in contemporary cinematography. The first is the car chase scene that lasts 247 seconds and follows our protagonist, his ex-wife Julian, Kee and two more characters from inside a moving car, as they try to get away from an ambush and suffer major losses in the process. At first, Lubezki deemed the mission of filming the entire thing in a crowded car impossible, so Cuarón dared him by saying he would do the scene in CGI. Wanting to prove that he was up to the task at hand, the DOP hired cinematographer and owner of Doggicam Systems Gary Thieltges, who devised a wirelessly controlled camera dolly called PowerSlide that was controlled by a stunt driver. This camera had the ability to rotate within the car, while the car was modified in such a way that assured seats could be lowered and lifted, so as to get the actors out of the camera’s way, which in turn required an intricate choreography that had to be rehearsed for two days straight, whereas the windshield could also tilt out of the way so the camera could freely move through it.
The second scene in question was a sequence that lasts 379 seconds and finds our main character running through a refugee camp, trying to avoid getting shot by tanks and gunmen. As Cuarón recalls, they had fourteen days to film the scene but they found themselves on day twelve, without the camera having been rolled. When the thirteenth day arrived and they finally did get to shooting, every time the director would say “Cut!,” it would take the crew five hours to set the entire piece up again. That meant the loss of daylight so all that remained was a single day to get it right. Everything was set, “Action!” was yelled and camera operator George Richmond tripped, which led to the camera falling. After another five hours of preparation, Cuarón was left with a single opportunity to nail it. At first, everything went right according to plan but then a few drops of fake blood accidentally ended up on the lens. And although a disheartened Cuarón yelled “Cut!,” nobody seemed to hear him because a timed explosion happened in that exact moment. After the shot was done, he was sure the take was unusable, but then Lubezki pointed out to him what a miracle that accident had been. And he was right, for the blood-spattered take became one of the movie’s most famous and talked about scenes, making for a kind of documentary realism that places us squarely in the battlefield alongside Theo.
However, it needs to be pointed out that, although those two sequences seem like continuous shots, they were actually combinations of several takes that the visual effects team had to put together in order to make it seem as though the camera was moving without any cuts. Cuarón himself admitted to this, noting how important it is to seamlessly blend everything so as to maintain the perception of fluency. And maintain that perception he did. If anything, Children of Men’s stunning sequences, along with its wonderful actors and gripping themes, take us on an unforgettable ride into the very heart of man and the dichotomy that lies within. For although it is only man who can inflict such unspeakable pain on his own kind, it is also only man who can allow himself to be reborn time and time again, in the midst of all the horror he has created.
Koraljka Suton is a member of the Croatian Society of Film Critics and has a master’s degree in German and English. For her thesis, she did a comparative analysis of Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’. Koraljka trained at a Zagreb-based acting studio for six years and fell in love with Michael Chekhov and Lee Strasberg’s acting techniques. She is also a contemporary dancer and a Reiki master who believes in the transformative quality of art. Read more »
“I think as a screenwriter you have to basically be a pathological optimist because if you really step back and look at the chances of success, you can get defeated pretty easily if you’re objective. I think that’s definitely a drive for me. Personally I always have hope. Everything I do is infused with some possibility even as I’m looking at the long odds.” —Timothy J. Sexton
Screenwriter must-read: Alfonso Cuarón & Timothy J. Sexton’s screenplay for Children of Men [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Director Alfonso Cuarón revisits Children of Men, his overlooked 2006 masterpiece, which might be the most relevant film of 2016.
Post-Azkaban, Universal was suddenly more willing to play ball. Cuarón met with studio chair Stacey Snider, who, in Cuarón’s recollection, told him, “I don’t understand this film, I have no idea what you want to do, but go ahead and do it.” It got the green light in 2005, and Cuarón mapped out a plan of aesthetic attack. He recruited his longtime friend and frequent partner Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki to be his cinematographer. Together, they hit on the idea of loading up the background with information—graffiti, placards, newscasts—and thus limiting the kind of expository dialogue that often plagues dystopian stories. Cuarón recalls Lubezki declaring, “We cannot allow one single frame of this film to go without a comment on the state of things.”
“I have to say,” Cuarón says, leaning back and scratching his stubble, “it was a very troubled production.” He speaks of people involved in the production “hiding [budget] numbers to try and please the studio,” but others recount different sources of discord. Part of the trouble, according to some of the producers, was Cuarón’s quickness to anger in his dogged pursuit of perfection. “When he arrived on a set, if it wasn’t exactly as he wanted, he could just lay it out on somebody,” Abraham says. “He would say, ‘This is bullshit! This isn’t what we talked about!’ He didn’t say, ‘Oh, this isn’t exactly right. Can we do it a little better?’ It’s like, ‘This didn’t work. If you guys don’t get it right, I’m not shooting it.’” As another producer, Iain Smith, puts it, “Alfonso has what I would call a performance temperament, meaning that he expects the best from everybody. He wasn’t doing it to be egotistical. He was doing it because, like all good filmmakers, he was frightened of failing his subject. That was a good thing. It was a tempestuous experience.” —Future Shock by Abraham Riesman
For their story on the legacy of Children of Men ten years later, Vulture’s Abraham Riesman spoke with the director at a sunlit restaurant in the hip neighborhood of La Condesa. The following is an excerpt from that interview. Read the full interview at Vulture.
Let’s talk about a few of the most famous shots from the movie. How did you put together the car-chase scene where Julian gets shot?
It was a lot of planning. The problem that I have when I’m writing is, I start imagining the shots. Very early, it was very clear to me that it was going to be a one-shot deal. It was this whole idea of being there in the moment with the character and experiencing violence. We didn’t want glamorous violence. When you constantly cut out, back, forward, you’re presenting the cool ways for a car to crash, as opposed to the random way in which violence happens. So it was in the page, more or less. But then you get into the simple thing of how do you put it together?
Chivo and me, we had, like, a weekly meeting about that shot. I remember the week in which he said okay. First, Chivo says it’s impossible. I say, “I know how to do it in green screen.” I knew exactly why I was saying that, because then Chivo says, “If this shot is green screen, I quit!” [Laughs.] The next day he says, “Okay, I talked to my friend. We can do this.”
The other big single-take shot is the one where Theo is running through the refugee camp. What visual references were you using for the camp, in general?
The camps that were in the Balkans. The ones in the Kurdish refugee camps. And a lot was also Calais.
When Theo runs into a hollowed-out bus in that shot, blood splatters on the camera lens. Can you tell me how that happened?
Initially, there was going to be blood splatter on the lens when they killed Julianne Moore. We were going to add that digitally. But long story short—or long story long—is that for [the refugee camp] shot, we had like 14 days to shoot the whole set piece, except by day 12 we hadn’t rolled cameras yet. As you can guess, by day three that you don’t shoot camera, they send a production guy from the studio to visit you. By the sixth day that you haven’t done it, the creative executive comes to visit you. Well, by the time that you reach the 11th day, the head of the studio is there. That kind of stuff.
And the problem is that we had only two shots a day to do the thing. The morning, then you have to reset the explosions, the screams, the whole thing. Five hours to reset. So you only have another shot right before the light goes away. And the problem is that, we could not extend it to the 15th day, because there was already a commitment with the army or something, one of those things.
So we are in the 13th day, and in the afternoon, we do our first shot. Then after a minute and a half, it just was wrong. So we had to reset for the next day. The next morning we do the first take, and everything is perfect, and we’re about to reach the end. We were running towards getting inside the building, when [camera operator] George [Richardson] tripped, and so the camera fell. So we only had one more shot for one more before we have to move out. It was the end of my career.
Were you panicking at that point?
You know, at that point, you’re just focusing.
Okay, so you get to the final attempt at the shot.
And when we arrived at the bus, the camera goes in, and blood splatters the lens. With my little monitor, I see that I cannot see anything. I yell, “Cut!” But an explosion happens at the same time, so nobody hears me. And that gives me time to think, “Look, I have to roll to the end.” So we kept on going. When we said, “Cut,” Chivo starts dancing like crazy. And I was like, “No, it didn’t work! There’s blood!” And Chivo turns to me and says, “You stupid! That was a miracle! The blood goes here, not with Julianne Moore!” Yeah, that was supposed to go in the other scene, but it happened here.
Let’s talk about the final scene, when Theo and Kee are in the rowboat, waiting for the Human Project’s ship.
What was important was the metaphor of the boat.
What is that metaphor?
We are naturally migrants. I mean, the reason we’re having this conversation is that it’s in the nature of humans to migrate. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. There wouldn’t be humans here; they would still be in Africa. —Alfonso Cuarón on Children of Men
Join BAFTA-winning writer/director Alfonso Cuarón as he shares his secrets for researching, writing and finding the perfect critic for your screenplay.
Alfonso Cuarón shares insights into his storied career, discussing his favourite writing spot, how he keeps focus and the toughest part of writing a screenplay.
Listen to Alfonso Cuarón explain how he directed Children of Men from breaking down his long takes to shaping London into a third world country.
ALFONSO CUARÓN AND THE ART OF LONG TAKES
Refocused Media’s Larry Wright has compiled a great video showing back to back all the long takes lasting 45 seconds or more in Children of Men.
I had seen the film a few times before, and couldn’t recall more than handful of shots that I thought would work. I was shocked to find there were 16 of them—heck, there are 6 longer than 90 seconds! They are used in a variety of situations, and to great effect. It was easy to see how I could forget there were so many, as each one simply pulled you further into the story.
Some other stats:
62 shots > 22 seconds (“half of 45,” my original criteria)
39 shots > 30 seconds
24 shots > 40 seconds
16 shots > 45 seconds
6 shots > 90 seconds
Obviously, you should see the film if you haven’t already. My point in doing this is to demonstrate the effect of a long take in a variety of narrative uses, and to give an idea of what a 45+ second shot looks and feels like when directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Enjoy. —Larry Wright, Children of Men videos
Critics and audiences were blown away by the infamous blood-splattered lens shot in Children of Men. But surprisingly, that wasn’t really what director Alfonso Cuarón originally had in mind.
See how one of the most iconic shots in cinema was accomplished using Doggicam’s Two Axis Dolly.
EMMANUEL LUBEZKI, ASC, AMC
“On Y Tu Mamá También, we started exploring shots that are longer, where the camera is moving around the actors and there are no cuts and you feel like you’re there. When Alfonso started talking to me about the scene in Children of Men, he said, ‘I would love to do it in one shot, and I have an idea: Why don’t we put the car on a stage and surround it with a green screen?’ Basically, to shoot it as a visual effect. For probably a week, I was thinking that way, until I realized it was absolutely the wrong way to do it. The rest of the movie was going to have a very naturalistic, almost documentary-like feel to it, and maybe the best way to shoot it was to really be in the car with the actors. At that time, we didn’t have much support for doing those very long scenes, because the other people around us were used to cutting and doing these scenes in a very Burbank way. They’d say, ‘Why bother? What a waste of effort.’ In reality, we could not shoot it more than two or three times, because the scene is so long and the choreography is so complex that it takes hours to reset between takes. So we did our first attempt, and when we said ‘Cut,’ we had achieved it on the first take, and the actors were screaming. They couldn’t believe it! I’ve never seen something like that, where they were shouting like little kids, ‘Yeah, we did it!’ The guy who was operating the crane? He was crying. It was that release of tension.” —Emmanuel Lubezki
“I’m going to tell you something, the reality is that the movie was so new that when we finished a shot we would get so excited people would scream on set—probably me before anybody else. There were moments when we were shooting and Alfonso said ‘cut’ we would all just jump and scream out of happiness because we’d achieved something that we knew was very special. In Children of Men, we also had moments like that. When we finished the first shot inside that car [the aforementioned ambush scene], the focus puller started crying. There was so much pressure that, when he realized he had done a great job, he just started crying.” —Emmanuel Lubezki
A closer look at Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki’s camera work in Alfonso Cuarón’s film Children of Men.
“When directing a film you have a lot of choices to make, and that includes your scene length and tone created by camera movement and placement. Our video essay will discuss how Alfonso Cuarón motivates his camera movement during the car chase long take in Children of Men.” —StudioBinder
Making of Children of Men (B-Roll).
Alfonso Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki are responsible for two of the most significant cinematic achievements in recent memory: Y Tu Mamá También (2001), shot in their home country of Mexico with then-unknowns Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, and Children of Men (2006), featuring a breathtaking 12-plus-minute single-take sequence. Cuarón and Lubezki made their film debut together in 1991, with Solo con tu pareja, and have since joined Hollywood as two of its most celebrated creative giants. Lubezki, a.k.a. “Chivo,” is the only person to have won the Oscar for Best Cinematography in three consecutive years; this includes 2014’s Gravity, for which Cuarón won for Best Director. In a gift to cinephiles, and as part of the Tribeca Talks: Director Series, the duo discussed their long friendship and creative partnership at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) Theater.
“It’s been a while since I’ve seen the film and it surprised me how much it’s grown in relevance since 2006. Novak called the Syrian refugee crisis our ‘Children of Men moment,’ and I think the reason we can say that is because the problems facing us now were already festering in 2006 and long before. I think the point this film wants to make—with its decidedly leftist position—is that the world’s macro problems are all connected. They’re global problems, problems in the global commons. If we ignore that, if we insist on hardening our respective nationalisms, the world might very well look like Children of Men before long.” —Evan Puschak, The Nerdwriter
Alfonso Cuarón sat down with BAFTA LA for a chat about his upbringing in Mexico, his turbulent film school years, his early filmmaking experiences and his flourishing, remarkable career. He revealed the secret motivation for his work ethic: he occasionally needs money.
Alfonso Cuarón talks about his experiences as a filmmaker with the French critic Michel Ciment. The director commented on his debuts, choice of films, and relationship with the American film industry, going from being cheerful and amused to move.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men. Photographed by Jaap Buitendijk © Universal Pictures, Strike Entertainment, Hit & Run Productions, Ingenious Film Partners 2, Toho-Towa. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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